Mary Winston Jackson was born on April 9, 1921, in Hampton, Virginia, the daughter of Ella and Frank Winston. She attended Hampton’s all-black schools and graduated with high honors from George P. Phenix Training School in 1937. Five years later, she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science from Hampton Institute.
After college, Mary Jackson took on a series of jobs, including teacher, bookkeeper and, receptionist. Then in 1951, she found employment at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor agency to NASA) in Langley, Virginia. She worked at the West Computers section as a research mathematician—known at the time as a "human computer." In 1953, she moved to the Compressibility Research Division of NACA.
After several months of “separate and unequal” accommodations, Mary Jackson had had enough. She considered resigning, but a chance encounter with a supervisor changed her mind. After hearing her complaints, he invited her to work for him and she accepted. He quickly saw her potential and encouraged her to take engineering classes. In time, she was promoted to aeronautical engineer, making her NASA's first black female engineer, and developed expertise working with wind tunnels and analyzing data on aircraft flight experiments.
In 2018, it was announced that Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City, Utah, named for President Andrew Jackson, would be renamed Mary W. Jackson Elementary School in honor of the groundbreaking NASA engineer.
“I plan on being an engineer at NASA…I have no choice but to be the first.”
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